Autism Policy Issues Overview


January 2012

NCSL Autism Legislation Database (Archive)
Search 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 legislation by state, topic, key word, year, status or primary sponsor.

Autism is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which causes developmental disabilities and numerous social, behavioral and physical challenges. Individuals with ASDs often display unusual behaviors and interests, unusual ways of learning and paying attention, and impaired verbal and non-verbal communication skills. In addition to these behavioral symptoms, individuals with autism will often have physical ailments such as asthma, digestive disorders, persistent viral infections and epilepsy.

Signs and symptoms of ASDs begin before age three and last throughout life. ASDs occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but are four times more likely to occur in boys than girls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that one in 110 children in the United States have an ASD. Currently there is no cure for autism, but early detection and treatment can greatly improve symptoms and development.

Significant debate exists over the causes of autism. Scientists believe that both genes and environment play a role in the development of ASDs, noting that environmental factors may trigger the expression of certain genes. Research exploring a possible link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism has shown no causal connection between the two. As a precaution, in 1999, the Public Health Service agencies, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and vaccine manufacturers agreed that thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated in vaccines for infants, and since 2001 thimerosal has not been used in routinely recommended vaccines, with the exception of small amounts in the influenza (flu) vaccines. For more information about mercury and immunizations, please click here.

Several federal actions have been taken in response to the rising rates of autism.  The 2000 Children's Health Act established the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and authorized the establishment of Centers of Excellence at both CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to promote research and monitoring efforts related to the causes, diagnosis, early detection, prevention, and treatment of autism.  In 2006, the federal Combating Autism Act was enacted, which provides almost $1 billion over five years for autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities research, screening, treatment and education. The Act established a federal advisory committee, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) to develop and annually update a strategic plan for the conduct of, and support for, autism spectrum disorder research. The IACC released its first annual strategic plan for autism research in January 2009.  In September 2011, the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act (Public Law 112-32) was signed into law.  The law authorizes $693 million in continued federal investment in autism research, treatment and services through fiscal year 2014. 

In response to the growing number of individuals with autism, states have taken action to address the needs of these individuals. Several states have developed task forces or commissions to further study autism issues. For example, in 2005 California created the California Legislative Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism with the goal of addressing the needs of children and adults with autism spectrum disorders. Other states have utilized Home and Community Based Waivers to make Medicaid funds available to assist individuals with autism. At least 29 states specifically require insurers to provide coverage for the treatment of autism. In 2011, Arkansas, California, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia enacted legislation requiring insurance coverage for autism.  In 2010, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire and Vermont enacted legislation requiring insurance coverage for autism.  In 2009, Colorado, Connecticut, Montana, NevadaNew Jersey, New Mexico and Wisconsin enacted legislation requiring insurance coverage for individuals with autism. Seven states enacted such legislation during the 2007-2008 legislative session: Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas. In addition, some states may require limited coverage for autism under their mental health coverage laws. For example, Massachusetts enacted legislation in 2008 to specify that autism shall be covered under their mental health parity laws on a nondiscriminatory basis. Connecticut enacted legislation in 2008 that requires insurers to provide coverage for physical, speech and occupational therapy services for the treatment of autism spectrum disorders to the extent that such services are a covered benefit for other diseases and conditions under such policy.

In 2006, Ohio created an Autism Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships for children with special education needs. The program makes it possible for these children to utilize private education providers and individual education plans without placing an enormous financial burden on the parents.


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This project is made possible under contract with the Act Early Regional Summit Project at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) with funding from the National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The content of this material does not necessarily reflect the views and policies of NCBDDD, CDC.


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